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Beyond Boston to Bangladesh

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Boston's explosions and Bangladesh's factory collapse have etched themselves onto those places' identities. In each, senseless brutality devastated hundreds of people. Two weeks after the Boston bombings, Americans focus almost obsessively on its stories. Yet a transformative global impact can be achieved by studying incidents like the latter, largely out of focus of the media but occupying prominent chapters in history books.

Boston's two April 15 explosions have prompted a media blitz that is still ongoing. Americans have responded with an outpouring of empathy for those harmed. We've started down a path of accountability and justice. And, despite Bostonians near universal health care coverage (thanks, Governor Romney), victims often receive affordable medical care.   Americans have opened their wallets, giving over $20 million -- or almost $100,000 -- for each injured person.

Yet the Bangladeshi building collapse has prompted less constructive action. Labor groups have protested in front of American retailers while Bangladeshis have made their outrage even more clear.   A quick look illustrates the urgency of action. The garment worker death toll from this week is 100 times greater than Boston's, standing at over 300, with perhaps another 1000 injured. But no safety net protected these factory workers at the accident and none serves injured workers now. Their vulnerability is demonstrated by the fact they continued to work under dangerous conditions, fearing loss of pay. In this case, illegally built floors and a wrong permit were factors but dangerous conditions are common. The Tazreen garment factory fire killed 112 five months ago and 41 more fire incidents occurred since then. Yet news coverage of conditions has been limited: $1-$2 per day garment workers can't compete with global retailer's budgets for media advertising.

Regardless, we know enough. Americans must work aggressively to stop harmful manufacturing practices. Sure, past inaction is partly explainable by retailers obscuring their factory practices.   But we can demand transparency and action. Others must no longer pay a high price for our cheap, abundant clothing (twice that of two decades ago).

Changing our behavior has transformed industries. Food is the perfect example.   The consumer-led food revolution has boosted local and organic food to 5 percent of America's total, provided important albeit limited victories in improving nutrition and sustainability.

For food, alternative distribution channels -- farmers markets and health food stores -- facilitated the information flow about industry practices and the development of standards. But the stories of transformation are many. A tragic event can be the catalyst for better treatment of garment workers as America's Triangular Shirtwaist Fire was 100 years ago. Consumers, too, can play a driving role.

We must do boycott negligent retailers, focus on the stories, contribute to victims and ditch fast fashion:

Boycott the retailers whose clothes were sold at dangerous factories until they treat their workers and the environment with respect. We can demand retailers provide workers with a fair wage, good working conditions and justice. They must: 1) ensure worker representation and collective bargaining, 2) create a compensation fund to support those harmed in these factory accidents, 3) provide independent monitoring of building conditions, and 4) pledge to phase out toxic chemicals which pollute the countries of manufacture and sale.

SIGN MY PETITION to boycott major retailers at factories where accidents have occurred, until these conditions are met.

In many cases, these represent significant changes to existing practices.   A Bangladeshi labor organizer was repeatedly tortured and killed because his efforts to represent workers.   Dangerous factories are often presented as safe -- two in the complex passed international audits -- either because of limited audits or corrupt inspections.   American companies have yet to develop a credible proposal to ensure factory soundness in Bangladesh, even refusing after Tazreen's fire to support a union-backed proposal to improve factory safety. Instead, many suggest a patchwork of audits and training that don't protect workers from similar outcomes. And after an accident, justice eludes many victims. American retailers recently chose not to attend a meeting to discuss compensation for Tazreen victims.

The tremendous scope of multinationals to shape the industry is bestowed upon consumers. Without demand, clothing is worth nothing.  

Pay attention to the hard-to-take stories and ask questions.   Many media outlets prioritize disasters and celebrities over labor rights and toxins.   Actions on the latter shape lives at the cost of advertiser profits.   We must get our news from those who maintain a steadfast focus on issues of justice and progress. Democracy Now! devoted most of their April 25 program to Bangladesh's recurring factory accidents.

One poignant story highlighted the panicked attempts of 24-year old Tazreen factory worker, Sumi Abedin to flee the plant. Abedin is campaigning for justice for Bangladeshi garment workers.   On the day of the fire, she smelled smoke but found the stairs padlocked when she ran to escape. After crying and screaming in the dark, she finally went to the third floor where a male worker bashed in a ventilation hole.

And then he jumped from that adjustment hole. And after he and one of my--I saw one of my co-workers jumped. And then I jumped. I never thought that I will survive. I didn't jump to save my life; I did jump to save my body, because if I would be in the factory, I would be burned to ash, and my family even couldn't identify my body. So I jumped--at least my parents can identify my body.   

Share such stories. Ask others if we are doing all we can do individually and collectively to promote action on apparel.

Give money   -- Random violence and natural disasters prompt us to give generously. But those exploited by global powerhouses are equally deserving. Start a fund, or contribute to one that benefits citizens devastated by unnatural disasters.

Ditch fast fashion --   Americans have an enormous appetite for clothes. Often the more we shop, the less we investigate. That's particularly dangerous as price is often not an indicator of quality. Garments costing 10 or 20 cents in wages may be sold for upwards of $100. With poor transparency into this sector, one can still opt out. Buy vintage or second hand clothes; they're often better made and relatively inexpensive. Look for artisan-based fashion. Hire a local tailor to sew or repurpose fabric (or be your own). Seek out ethically made or fair trade certified clothing.

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.
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